July 25, 2013

A time for some old-fashioned grind

The Australian batting group certainly has the talent but now it's all about mental application

Eight years ago, the Australian squad headed to Manchester for the third Ashes Test, at Old Trafford, on the back of a defeat. We had struggled as a batting unit in the previous Test, at Edgbaston, and for me personally, the Old Trafford Test loomed as a serious mental battle. My approach to batting had been forced away from its natural balance. I was struggling to get my head around Andrew Flintoff bowling from around the wicket, while Simon Jones, Steve Harmison, and Matthew Hoggard were all finding some reverse swing.

In the ten minutes before I went out to bat, I was still juggling whether I would try to defend and bat for two hours, letting the England bowlers slowly come to me, or if I would try to belt them off their plan straight away. My approach had become first gear or sixth gear, with nothing in between. And while your mind is swirling with that uncertainty, the one certainty is that you won't produce your best. You must remember that your skill level won't improve in the short space between Tests: it's all between the ears.

Just like in 2005, the challenge for the Australians as they look toward the third Test at Old Trafford is now a mental one. In finding the best approach, Australia's batsmen could do worse than look to their opponents. England's batsmen are all versatile and play limited-overs cricket as well as Tests, yet they have found a way to manage the different formats effectively. The key in this series has been that the foundation of England's batting has been crease occupation.

Both teams have found themselves at 30-odd for 3 more than once already in this series but the difference has been that England have had batsmen who then resorted to what these days would be called old-fashioned grinding: occupying the crease and forging a partnership. As the Australians have found to their detriment during the first two Tests, every minute that you resurrect your innings it wears down your opponents.

Joe Root was the man who led that response in the second innings at Lord's and he looks like a terrific player with the foundations to develop into a fine cricketer for years to come. But it was Ian Bell who really provided the backbone for England in the first innings, allowing them to push up to 361. Jonathan Trott's half-century did not receive the acknowledgement it deserved either - the partnership between Trott and Bell stopped any momentum Australia had taken from Nottingham and run with during the first hour at Lord's.

Bell and Trott provided a fine example to the Australians. The whole England top order - Root, Alastair Cook, Trott, Bell, Kevin Pietersen and even Jonny Bairstow - have those capabilities. They all feature in limited-overs games as well, but have shown that there is no need to pigeonhole yourself as a certain kind of player. In this era of three formats, the quality players are versatile enough to adjust their games to suit the requirements whether it's T20, 50-over, or Test cricket.

The Australian batting group certainly has the talent but now it's all about mental application, and that is such a difficult part of your game to apply when you feel under siege. That's how the Australians would feel now. Hopefully the batsmen, individually and with the expertise they have around them, will be able to work out their plans for Old Trafford and not lose focus. It is one thing to pounce on loose balls, but quite another to attack without regard for the bowling.

When I started playing for Australia there was an approach of scoring 300 in a day, led by Steve Waugh, and since then scoring rates have gone up significantly. But the best teams always had players who were willing to set the innings up first. Ricky Ponting was the most free-flowing of batsmen, but he would come in at No. 3 and occupy the crease, leave the ball, soak up some deliveries and make sure he was well set to eventually counterattack.

It is one thing to pounce on loose balls, but quite another to attack without regard for the bowling

Of course, if the bowling on offer allows you to play your shots from ball one, then you should take the opportunity. Unfortunately for the Australians, the English bowling unit has been ruthless. At Lord's in particular, they really hunted as a pack and no one gave the batsmen any let-up. That makes it even more a mental battle for the Australian batsmen. It's a fine balance between occupying the crease with no real intent and flaying at everything.

It comes down to the individuals to make those choices out in the middle about shot selection and the ways to approach a bowler. Usman Khawaja is a good example. In the first innings at Lord's he looked tentative in everything that he did, and then he tried to be really positive and aggressive against Graeme Swann and it led to his downfall. Nobody would begrudge him attempting a shot like that, but it seemed a contradiction after the way he had started.

In the second innings, everything Khawaja did looked really positive, from his first ball to his first forward defence, to his first scoring shot. It looked as though he was backing himself. He got to 50 and forged a good partnership with Michael Clarke and it was an example that a positive mindset, even in defence, is of paramount importance.

Developing that approach begins at Sheffield Shield level, and while I haven't seen enough Shield cricket in the last few years to comment on the quality of batting at that level, I hear more and more that the pitches are a concern, that they make things too difficult for batsmen and easy for bowlers, which creates a false sense for both once they reach Test level.

Perhaps the positioning of the Shield needs to be looked at as well. T20 cricket is here to stay and is a valuable part of the cricket calendar, but it needs to be very carefully scheduled and the timing of the BBL well thought out. There are also issues around the salaries paid to players for the different formats. I remember a lot of players being disgruntled when the contracting system was announced and was heavily weighted towards the BBL.

There are many reasons to be positive about T20 and the role it has in taking cricket well into the future in a healthy state, but there may be a need for administrators to have a look at the balance and check if we have it right. Scheduling and dividing up the player payments aren't easy jobs - they are very complex, in fact. However, there needs to be incentive for young players to focus on the Sheffield Shield as well as the BBL, and that will have a natural flow-on effect on Test cricket.

For now, here's hoping Australia's batsmen can do what I personally couldn't in 2005 and get their heads in the right space ahead of the Old Trafford Test. England have shown them how to do it.

Adam Gilchrist was speaking to Brydon Coverdale

Adam Gilchrist played 96 Tests for Australia as a wicketkeeper-batsman and was part of three winning Ashes campaigns

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